A view of Hallstatt.
A view of Hallstatt.

Hallstatt, Austria | Salt of the earth

In Europe's oldest inhabited village, spooked by a 3,000-year-old mine and rows of painted skulls

I hopped out of my train and stood at a station with a single platform long enough to accommodate one train coach, next to a lake surrounded by Alpine hills. I walked down a narrow path to the pier, from where a ferry took me across to a village. It was the village of Hallstatt, where time has stood still for far longer than in any other village on earth.

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I had been visiting Salzburg, Austria. It had been a cold, rainy morning—and I could see my day’s plans for walking around the city washed out. The landlady at the pensione (guest house) had suggested a day-trip to Hallstatt, about two and a half hours away by train, where the weather, we hoped, would be kinder to us. I’d never heard of the place. But I did a quick online check and was fascinated by what I found.

The village’s central square. Photo: Prachi Joshi

Hallstatt, it turned out, was a typical one-horse town—a single main street, one market square, two churches, some shops, cafés and restaurants and about 1,000 residents and their homes. In fact, we walked from one end of Hallstatt to the other in less than 10 minutes. The village hadn’t grown too much in size since its early days, it appeared.

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The tourist entrance of the saltmine. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Our guide was dressed as “Sepp the Miner" or “Man in Salt", a well-preserved corpse of a prehistoric miner discovered in 1734. He told us that salt production began here around 2000 BC, when brine was captured in vessels and evaporated to form salt.

Later during the Iron Age, salt was mined underground. Salt production continues even today, though now the brine is piped to a treatment plant in nearby Ebersee. While the brine is still evaporated to produce salt, the process is now mechanized.

As we walked through the mine’s subterranean confines, we came upon long wooden slides that connect different levels of the mine. I looked down the incline from the top of the slide, and a tingle of fear ran through me. The slide was 64m long—and I hadn’t slid down one since childhood. Of course, I could take the stairs nearby but I decided it was time to face my fears. Once I started my descent, I couldn’t help but squeal with excitement and exhilaration as I hurtled downward.

Once in the lower levels, we walked through narrow tunnels that led to the prehistoric parts of the mine. Walls closed in from the sides and above, and I had to crouch at several places to make my way through. I shuddered to think of the possibility of being trapped in this underworld, far from the well-lit locales I had spent all my life in. As our netherworld journey ended and we took a ride on a mining train from the bowels of the earth back to the welcome sunlight and open skies, I felt like I had come up for air after a really long time. I had to shield my eyes from the bright sunlight—it took me a moment to get used to it.

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We walked through the church’s main hall and cemetery, but what we were more interested in was the Beinhaus (bone house). The cemetery was small, so families could only lease graves there for a few years. Once the lease was up, the graves were opened, the skulls and bones removed and placed in the ossuary, or bone house (nowadays the bodies are buried for a few years and the remains are then cremated).

The moment I stepped in, I was confronted by rows of skulls arranged on multiple shelves against the walls. In the dim light of the chapel, the 1,200-odd sun-bleached skulls gleamed a dull white as we walked around, reading the names and years of death inscribed on each. I recoiled instinctively but couldn’t help being amazed at the unlikely collection of morbid exhibits.

On the lower shelves, large bones were stacked, almost like logs of firewood. As I walked through this relic of a forgotten death ritual, I felt like I had opened a Pandora’s box of forbidden secrets.

The memories of the deathly sights, and the images of darkness I had seen in the morning, stayed with me even as we descended the hill steps and headed back to the lakeside streets of Hallstatt to make our way back to the far tamer surroundings of Salzburg.

As I looked out of my train window at the waterfront houses and hills receding in the distance, I felt like a child who had seen a horror movie for the first time—excited by the morbid sights I had just seen, but also wondering if I would be assailed in my sleep by nightmares.

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